Where the world of robotics is concerned, designs often tend to mimic nature - a design process known as biometry. The six-legged Abigaille - built by Canadian researchers at Simon-Frasier University - is no exception to this rule. The robot, which might one day be deployed on the hulls of spacecraft to assist in maintenance and repair, uses microscopic hairs on its feet known as "setae" to adhere to virtually any surface.
The design, says the researchers, is directly based on the feet of real-world geckos, whose feet are covered in microscopic hairs 1000 times thinner than that of a human. These hairs interact with whatever surface they contact, creating an attraction at the molecular level - a principle known as the van der Waals force. Although the robot's setae are around 100 times larger than that of a
Gecko due to technical limitations, research team leader Mike Henrey
explains that they're still sufficient to support the machine's weight.
Abigaille was tested this week by the European Space Agency, which place Abigaille in conditions replicating the vacuum and temperatures of space. This is significant because more common adhesive methods - such as velcro or magnets - are not suitable for deep space, and could easily either damage or interfere with a spacecraft. Further, Abigaille's six legs allow it an unprecedented degree of dexterity, allowing it to easily shift between horizontal and vertical positions.
"A depth-sensing indentation instrument was used inside a vacuum chamber to precisely assess the dry adhesive's sticking performance... Experimental success means deployment in space might one day be possible," explained ESA specialist Laurent Pambaguian in a press release.
Unfortunately, deployment is likely still a long ways off..Although the ESAs tests determined the gecko-bot can function ably in the vacuum of space, it's still anything but a perfect climbing machine. Currently, its climbing speed clocks in at a paltry 24 millimeters per second. What's more, there's still a bit of testing to be done, too - Abigaille isn't quite ready to go up into space just yet.
When Abigaille finally does launch, the team will likely send a more general-purpose droid which can be modified to fit whatever needs arise. This is, says Henrey, due to the significant cost of upgrading hardware in space. " The idea," he explains, "would be to fly a more general robot in the first place. This could then be adapted through software upgrades for different tasks that weren't anticipated at the start of the project."
Abigaille might not be ready for prime-time just yet, but it still represents an innovation both promising and exciting in the field of space exploration and study. Currently, repairs on space stations and the like often require
astronauts to go on hours-long spacewalks, operating tools and gear with the large, cumbersome gloves of their spacesuits. With a robot like Abigaille, astronauts could safely repair deep-space vehicles without ever having to suit up except in the most dire of circumstances.
Plus, there's just something downright cool about a whole legion of lizard-shaped repair bots, isn't there?